How epilepsy is diagnosed

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Learn about the methods of diagnosis, an important stage in understanding the cause of your child's seizures.

Key points

  • Your child's healthcare team will aim to diagnose the source of your child's seizures by taking your child's medical history, doing a physical and neurological exam and, if needed, doing further tests.
  • Your child's medical history includes a description of their seizures, their overall health, their development and any medical conditions or head injuries.
  • A physical exam includes checking your child's appearance, behaviour, height, weight and their breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
  • A neurological exam includes checking your child's brain and nervous system, for example by testing your child's thinking skills, reflexes and co-ordination.
  • If your child needs further tests, such as an EEG or other neuroimaging, these will be explained to you and your child ahead of time.

Diagnosis is an important stage in understanding the cause of your child’s seizures. It will involve a detailed patient history, a physical exam and, possibly, several tests. There is no one test that can always identify epilepsy. This is why a patient history and your observations of your child’s seizures are an essential part of diagnosis. Each meeting with your child’s doctors and other medical professionals during diagnosis is important but can be difficult emotionally. For these reasons, bring paper and a pen and take notes and write questions as you think of them. You may also bring a relative or friend to take notes for you.

Medical history

The medical history includes your and your child’s description of their seizures – what they felt and what you observed before, during and after the seizures. If you have video equipment, you may wish to record your child’s seizures for the neurologist to see, as it may help identify your child's type of epilepsy.

The doctor will also ask questions about:

  • your child’s health, eating habits and exercise
  • their development up to now, how they are doing in school, and whether any family members had seizures
  • the mother's pregnancy in case her health and experiences during pregnancy are connected with your child's seizures.

If your child is older, the doctor will ask how active they are and about the symptom(s) that prompted the visit and past medical experiences and hospitalizations. The doctor will also ask about other aspects of your child’s life, such as how well they are doing at school and whether they are having trouble keeping up.

Regardless of your child’s age, the doctor may also ask about:

  • any siblings or other relatives who may have had epilepsy or seizures
  • the details of your child’s birth
  • your child’s development
  • recent or past head injuries
  • fever
  • other illnesses or medical conditions
  • medications your child is taking
  • what your child experienced before, during, and after the seizure.

The doctor will also ask for your observations before, during and after the seizure, including:

  • the time of day
  • what your child was doing before the seizure
  • whether they were sick, feverish, tired, stressed or emotional
  • how the seizure began
  • what their movements (if any) looked like during the seizure
  • if the movements were on a particular side of their body
  • whether they were able to talk and respond during the seizure
  • whether they made any sound
  • how long the seizure lasted
  • if they were confused, tired or sore after the seizure
  • if they could speak normally after the seizure
  • if they have had more than one seizure, whether the seizures looked the same each time.

Physical examination

A physical examination of your child may be carried out by a doctor, nurse practitioner or a medical resident. The doctor will ask specific questions about symptoms, as this can provide clues to your child's type of condition.

The doctor generally starts by examining your child's appearance, skin colour, general health, comfort level and behaviour, and measures their height and weight. The doctor may record your child’s heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature and blood pressure.

The doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to your child’s heart and their lungs for problems. They will look for general physical abnormalities and certain birthmarks.

Neurological examination

The doctor will perform a neurological examination as part of the physical examination. A neurological examination tests your child’s brain and nervous system will help to find out which part of your child’s brain is affected and causing symptoms.

A full neurological exam takes between 10 and 30 minutes. Here are some examples of tests that might be done, depending on your child’s age and level of development.

  • Mental status: Your child may be asked the time, the day of the week, and the date. They may be asked to repeat a list of objects, describe yesterday’s breakfast, and talk about a recent holiday or family gathering. Their level of attention to the person conducting the test will be observed.
  • Cranial nerve functions: Your child may be asked to follow an object with their eyes, to see how well they move. They may be asked to smile, turn their head, shrug their shoulders, stick their tongue out, and open and close their eyes.
  • Motor function: To test muscle strength, your child may be asked to grip the examiner’s hand. They may have to hold their arms straight out for 10 seconds with their eyes closed. The examiner may hold their arms and legs, and ask them to push.
  • Reflexes: The examiner may test your child’s arm, leg, and foot reflexes by gently tapping on them with a rubber hammer.
  • Coordination and gait: Your child may be asked to walk on their toes, balance on one foot, and balance with their feet together and their eyes closed. They may be asked to touch their fingers to their nose, and then to the examiner’s finger.
  • Sensory function: Your child’s sense of touch may be tested using various objects such as a pin point or cotton ball.

Diagnostic tests

If the results of the physical and neurological exams suggest that your child may have epilepsy or a physical problem that is causing seizures, additional tests may be scheduled. These tests may include blood, cerebrospinal fluid or urine tests, an EEG or other neuroimaging, which provides a picture of the brain.

For some of these tests, your child will need to be sedated or anaesthetized. You will be told about the test before your child has it, along with certain things you will need to do to help prepare your child for the test.

Will my child need to have a lot of tests?

Your child may need to have several tests if the source of the condition is not immediately obvious. Sometimes results from one test may be inconclusive and the doctor needs to try some others to either rule out or confirm a diagnosis.

How can I help my child get through tests?

The health professionals who will be giving your child tests are very skilled at what they do and skilled at working with children. They will be as gentle and efficient as possible. They will take account of your child's age and experiences and adjust their approach accordingly. If a procedure is expected to cause a lot of pain, your child will be given a sedative or an anaesthetic.

Last updated: February 4th 2010